Saturday, 24 October 2015


I'm in Germany right now, and, for the first time we took the train the whole way.  I love train journeys, and so does my son - there's a romance about them, a satisfaction in going almost door-to-door, and a really nice sense that you see the intervening landscape rather than the dislocation that comes from taking off in one place and seemingly magically landing somewhere entirely different.

Hauptbahnhof, Koeln.  Source: wikimedia

My son really flummoxed me on the journey from Brussels: I was busy day-dreaming, when he suddenly asked 'When are we in Germany?'  I suddenly realised that I had no idea which country we were in.  As it turned out, the changing appearance of the houses made it quite clear when we'd crossed the border, but it did remind me just how artificial borders are.  The channel can con us into thinking differently.  It's also a message repeatedly brought home to me by my husband, who is mainly German, was born and brought up in Romania, by a Bulgarian mother and an Austrian father.

There's very little that's natural about borders.  Even when they are marked by physical geography, history shows us that they are mutable and mean different things at different times.  The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are particularly fascinating in this respect, since they seem to mark two seemingly contradictory trends.  On the one hand, it was during this period that polities began to take on more distinctive identities, both politically and culturally - and borders began to be crystallised.  On the other hand, it's a period of really surprising levels of travel, contact and exchange (the latter two terms forming the title of a collection of essays we edited for Malcolm Vale about precisely this topic).  I think it's really significant that it was the moment at which borders were more clearly visible, that travel and exchange became pretty commonplace.

The refugee crisis means that thinking about what borders mean (and don't mean) is particularly pressing.  Borders often serve a purpose, but it would surely be helpful, and ultimately a bit more humane, if we reminded ourselves regularly that they have complex and shifting histories.  We very nearly missed our connection in Brussels because there were 'trespassers' on the line at Calais.  Thinking about what this really meant, and the assumptions and prejudices on so many levels which continue to generate such situations, is, I think, deeply troubling.

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